Kuolemanlaakso: Songs of Water and Fire

Within less than a year and a half, Kuolemanlaakso have managed to release two excellent albums plus an equally recommendable EP. A couple of weeks after the street date of the latest longplayer, Tulijoutsen (read our review here ), the band presented its new material live for the first time at On The Rocks in Helsinki. Before the soundcheck, we caught up with guitarist/main songwriter Markus Laakso and vocalist Mikko Kotamäki.

First of all, congratulations on making it to the Finnish Top 10! Was that expected?
ML: Thank you!
MK: Thanks, and no, we didn´t expect it!
ML: The release was well-timed now, whereas the previous album came out amidst the worst Christmas rush. So we figured that this one might rise higher than the last one.

How well did the first one do?
ML: In the official charts, it ranked number 42. On the Rumba list [major Finnish music magazine], it was number 6.

The new album entered the album charts at number ten – maybe because it contains a greater number of catchy tracks?
ML: Could be, and of course the band is better known now than we were upon releasing our debut. We now have an established listener base, back then people were merely wondering what we were about.

Last year at Tuska you drew quite a crowd!
ML: That was really awesome! Bolt Thrower played at the same time, so we had our doubts if anyone would come to see us…

I guess you attract a somewhat different audience…
ML: Yeah, the older people watched Bolt Thrower and the younger ones were at our gig!

Markus, apparently the new album is more of a band effort and no longer exclusively your own songs?
ML: Yes, bassist Usva and guitarist Kouta wrote material for it as well. I asked the others straight away if they could contribute something of their own and they came up with really good songs. The record became much better with not only my stuff on it. “Verihaaksi” for example is one of my favorites, the lyrics are mine but it was composed by Usva the bass player and has all sorts of weird fingerings that I would never have thought of.

Are you gonna play that one live?
ML: Yes, we will!

Can you tell us a bit about the process of creating this album?
ML: Well, we literally went into the forest…
MK: …and had a great time there! I´m a rather lazy person and bad at concentrating, so it was a good solution to be in one place all the time. In the morning, we would have a beer and some breakfast, then record a couple of songs. When we got tired of that, we would prepare some food and eat again. After a break of two or three hours, you´re able to concentrate again.
ML: In between, we also went outside to check the fish trap or chop some wood.
MK: If you spend the whole day inside some small room with concrete walls instead, you get tired of recording pretty quickly.
ML: Another thing is that I had only about half of the lyrics finished when we entered the studio. Given that the woods are quite central in our imagery, it was a very inspiring environment. Writing about the forest while you´re in the midst of it works better than imagining it from your desk at home.

In case of “Glastonburyn lehto”, the whole song resulted from studio jam, right?
ML: Actually it happened at our own rehearsal room while we were preparing for a gig. We were sitting in the coffee corner, all of us except Mikko, taking a break from rehearsing and having some beer and red wine. Kouta grabbed an acoustic bass and Usva, who normally plays bass, took an acoustic guitar and our drummer just started slapping his thighs.

For the recordings, you apparently bought the percussion instruments from the grocery store? The inner sleeve of the album mentions couscous and a sugar bag…
ML: (laughs) We took whatever we found in the kitchen! So that´s how it was born – Usva played some melody, Kouta accompanied him on the bass, from time to time I called for this or that kind of break and the beats were just clapped. The foundation was laid by jamming, and the arrangement of the song was deliberately left open. Then one morning Usva and I woke up earlier than the others and agreed that it was time to decide on the final arrangement. We had it down in twenty minutes. It was the last song that Mikko recorded his vocals for, and the last day of the studio sessions. In the morning it still didn´t have any lyrics, so I wrote them in a bit of a hurry. But they came out well; I think they´re perhaps the second best of our lyrics so far.

They really fit the mood of the song. I noticed that Mikko´s former bandmate Kasper Mårtenson played the Moog on it, so apparently there is no bad blood between you guys and Barren Earth over “stealing” their singer?
ML: (laughs) He readily agreed to the job, a very cooperative and capable guy – I don´t know him very well but of course Mikko does. He send us his first version and I asked him if he could change one little thing, and he was like, “as many times as you want until you´re satisfied!”

You already mentioned the significance of nature in your lyrics. Fire and water are recurring elements…
ML: …all the way to the cover artwork and the name of the album. This had not been planned in advance, but during the recording sessions I realized that the tracks were clearly distinguishable into “fire” and “water” songs. I continued from that and pursued the topic more consciously. “Tulijoutsen” means “fire swan”, which associates fire and water, and the colors red and blue are used in the booklet. Each song represents either fire or water, except “Aarnivalkea”, which contains both.

Aarni Kouta´s poem “Tulijoutsen” (1904) is referred to in the lyrics of both “Aarnivalkea” and the EP track “Kalmoskooppi…
ML: Yes, I drew mostly on his poetry this time. It´s like ancient Finnish invocations, a very beautiful archaic style with words that are no longer used anywhere. I borrowed some of that atmosphere and vocabulary, perhaps also some of his thoughts, although in practice the lyrics are mostly inspired by other sources and not taken directly from the poems.

In “Verihaaksi”, you linked Kouta´s “Tuntemattomille merille” with a historical event – where did that idea spring from?
ML: The song was Usva´s, and he said that his vision for it was some massively huge shipwreck approaching the shore. I had read Kouta´s book and figured that this poem would match the idea, but then I also did some online research on ghost ships and came upon the story of the Ourang Medan [a Dutch cargo ship reportedly found adrift in 1947 with its whole crew dead], which I found to fit perfectly with what the song was about musically. So I took that story and gave it a little Kouta twist. In my opinion, these are the best lyrics I´ve written for this album.

“Arpeni” in turn is a quite personal story…
ML: Yes, part of is very personal. It also incorporates the myth of [malicious water spirit] Näkki, which underlies the chorus, but the verses indirectly tell the story of my best friend, who drowned a few years ago. It´s a very intense song – I still have dreams of my friends at least once a month.

Mikko, how does it feel to interpret another guy´s deeply personal experiences?
MK: Hmm, I don´t know…
ML: At least you put a lot of emotion into it.
MK: Well, my capacity for empathy is limited, but I sure prefer to sing about such real matters rather than, let´s say, about Jesus… [both laugh] And shit can happen to everyone.

I got a promo CD in advance, but after buying the actual vinyl album, I found that my own lyrical favorite, “Raadot raunioilla”, was missing from it. Why did you drop such an essential song?
MK: In fact that one was in great danger of being scrapped altogether.
ML: Yes, we were thinking of not publishing it at all. But then we streamlined the arrangement a bit – actually we spent more time on this song than any other, with the keyboards and all – and in the end it came out quite nicely. However, it doesn´t follow the fire/water theme; it´s more of an “earth” song. And its words and music don´t go hand in hand as smoothly as they do in the other songs, that was one reason why it was omitted. But this one is based on real-life events as well: one day I walked past my childhood home and found that the whole adjacent forest had been cut down!

By the way, why is the song order on the LP completely different than on the CD?
ML: That was simply for practical reasons, because the songs are so long and we had to make them fit somehow. The other alternative would have been to drop yet another song.
MK: There´s only so much space on one side of an LP…
ML: I think the maximum is 26 minutes.

It sure is a better solution than what many labels do these days – distribute the material on three sides of a double LP and charge five euros more for it.
MK: And it´s more ecological!

Your vinyl releases are particularly rewarding because of the great cover artwork…
ML: I definitely agree!

Which brings me to the question, why did you choose a different artist for the EP than for the full albums?
ML: That was a question of budget! (laughs) Also, our album cover artist Maahy Muhsin is studying art in Malaysia; was busy as hell at the time and we were on a tight schedule. Besides, EP´s don´t sell nearly as much as longplayers. We needed something good in a short time, so we asked a familiar artist, Markus Räisänen. And he did an unbelievable job!

It perfectly captures the fire/water duality.
ML: Yes, topic-wise the EP is a sister release to the album. Its songs were recorded during the same sessions, of course.

Whose idea was it to cover a song by Juice [Leskinen (1950-2006), legendary Finnish singer/songwriter] for the EP?
ML: (laughs) Not everyone was as fond of the idea as I was, originally. It started with the name of the song, which could have easily been the title of one of our own songs. I´ve known Juice´s songs since I was a little kid, and this one is a love song, something I would never write myself – at least not for this band. At the same time, the lyrics are quite doom-y, and I found them to suit our band surprisingly well. But it took some effort to make it work, and I first had to make a complete demo of it because some band members originally had no clue what I was after.

How about you, Mikko – did you have a clue?
MK: I got it at some point… The original I personally can´t stand listen to at all, it just doesn´t work for me in any way. But the song has some bloody great lyrics.
ML: Juice worked on those lyrics for nine years! Not every day, of course, but over a span of nine years in total.
MK: What we came up with was probably hard to swallow for many Juice fans. It´s fun to spark some debate as to whether one may do this in music.
ML: Well, we just went and did it! We simply put it on the EP and there it was, no further provocation necessary. In my opinion it sounds like Kuolemanlaakso and not like Juice.

Markus, has Juice ever been an influence to you? After all, he was one of the first rock songwriters to produce intelligent Finnish lyrics.
ML: Yes, I dig him a lot. He was also one of the first artists I saw live, 1986 on the Kuopio market square. Tarot had just released “Spell of Iron” and this was my first metal gig, but they were playing there as a warm-up act for Juice. He was dressed in stockings, wearing another pair of stockings on his head, and he was very drunk. A memorable performance!

Speaking of Juice, who was also known as a translator, and knowing from own experience that rendering poetry in a different language is a tricky business – how does it feel to translate your own Finnish lyrics into English for the album booklets?
ML: It´s pretty challenging, because I often use words for which no English equivalent exists. And even when it does, I still have to find a rhythm that makes for a poetic flow in English. Usually it doesn´t take very long, though – my English is quite fluent because I lived in the US for a couple of years and in Canada for half a year; first I moved to San Diego/California and later to Toronto.

I think those translations are pretty good, and obviously they are a great help to fans from abroad. Has Svart Records been marketing your albums outside of Finland yet?
ML: Yes, and the new album is getting much more promotion abroad than the first one. We have different agencies in the US, Germany, the UK and Finland. I don´t know how well it´s been selling abroad, but at least there has been a good deal of media coverage, especially in Germany and the US.

How active are your respective other bands at the moment?
ML: Chaosweaver is not dead, but it hasn´t been active since we completed the second album. It was a very exhausting process that took one and a half years, and it drained all the energy from us as far as that type of material was concerned. And since then Kuolemanlaakso has made records at quite a brisk pace.

How about Swallow The Sun?
MK: We´re gonna release a new album… after we manage to finish it. Part of it is already completed, but we´re not rushing anything this time. After all these years it´s a miracle that the whole fuckin´ band is still together (laughs). The biz has treated us with rough hands!

Back to the present – what are your expectations for the show tonight?
ML: Hard to say, but I think there´ll be quite a lot of people – I´ve heard that [main act] Metsatöll usually draws quite a crowd. But music-wise… the first band, from what I´ve checked on youtube, plays grunge à la Alice In Chains, then it´s us and afterwards Metsatöll, so each has a different style. I´m curious to see what kind of reception we´ll get from the Metsatöll fans, and how many people will be there because of us. Soon we´ll see!

You´ve been confirmed for Nummirock – will you play at other festivals this summer, and what are your plans for the future in general?
ML: I don´t know yet what shows and festivals there will be apart from those the booking agency has mailed us about, but I hope we´ll also be at others besides Nummirock. We´re doing a few club gigs now, but I can´t say what will happen after that. Hopefully there´ll be some gigs in the fall. The plan for next year is to take it a bit slower, but then again, we´ve already started writing new material.
MK: We´ve played such a small number of gigs, so…
ML: …there´s been time to write songs. If we don´t get to play live, we´ll just do another album!


Tina Solda - concert and festival reports, photos, interviews - - - Favorite genres: I don't care much about genres, but on a grossly generalized level I like melancholic death, unconventional black, melodic doom, dramatic folk and smart pagan metal (main regions: Iceland, Finland & Norway) - - - Other interests: guitar, books, beer, movies, cats.